Caring for your camelids: key aspects of llama and alpaca husbandry and welfare - Veterinary Practice
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Caring for your camelids: key aspects of llama and alpaca husbandry and welfare

The key to keeping South American camelids – llamas and alpacas – healthy is understanding their behavioural, nutritional and welfare needs and providing suitable husbandry to match

Camels do not just come from deserts and have humps. There are two species of South American camelid that have thick fur, no humps and live in arid uplands and dry mountain plateaus. They are the descendants of two species of exotic ungulate that many may be familiar with: the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), pronounced “ghwuah-nah-koh”, and the vicuna (Lama vicugna), pronounced “vi-cun-yja”, both of which are found in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

The guanaco and the vicuna diverged around 2 million years ago and have evolved to live at high altitudes, often up to, and sometime over, 4,000m. As such, they possess adaptations to help them survive at these heights, such as high numbers of circulating erythrocytes to combat the lower oxygen concentration in the air and thick but soft fur that traps warm air next to their skin. The thin atmosphere means that night-time temperatures can drop below freezing and, therefore, such a woolly jumper is vital for survival.

Guanacos and vicunas have a long relationship with people – the vicuna is the national animal of Peru – but the history of the domestication of the two species descended from them is ambiguous. These two species are the llama (Lama glama), derived from the guanaco, and the alpaca (Lama pacos), derived from the vicuna (Figure 1).

FIGURE (1) A guanaco’s natural habitat in the altiplano of southern South America (top left) and a pair of llamas, the domesticated version of the guanaco (top right). The vicuna (bottom left) is smaller than the llama and lives at higher elevations. The alpaca (bottom right) is smaller and fluffier than a llama and was domesticated from the vicuna

Origins of llamas and alpacas

Genetic investigation from the early 2000s confirmed the origins of the llama in the guanaco and the origins of the alpaca in the vicuna. Evidence of llamas and alpacas in the fossil record dates from around 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. They were brought to lower elevations around 3,800 years ago to extend their range of uses to human activities.

Key differences in the anatomy and characteristics of llamas and alpacas are listed in Table 1. Both species occur in a range of assorted colours, from reds and browns to white, black, grey and beige. Fleece colour can be solid, mottled, spotted or patchy. Hybrids of llamas and alpacas have been created to improve the quality and amount of fleece harvested.

Larger in mass (up to 200kg) and height (up to 1.2m at the shoulder)Smaller in mass (up to 80kg) and height (up to 1m at the shoulder)
Longer neck and legsShort neck and legs
Coarse outer coat with soft inner coatFiner, softer coat
Longer, banana-shaped earsStraight ears
Longer faceShorter, more rounded face
Independent minded and more outgoingSocial and docile but skittish
Can live up to 20 yearsNormally live 15 to 20 years
TABLE (1) Common phenotypic differences between the llama and alpaca species

Keeping llamas and alpacas in the UK

In the UK, llamas and alpacas are kept as companion animals and in zoological collections and are used in industries that encourage animal encounters (eg alpaca and llama trekking). The key to keeping these camelids healthy is providing a suitable diet, clean and well-drained pasture, good fleece care and maintenance, and suitable housing.

The key to keeping these camelids healthy is providing a suitable diet, clean and well-drained pasture, good fleece care and maintenance, and suitable housing


The social environment for llamas is important for good long-term health and welfare. As these animals are naturally gregarious and should not be kept alone, a single individual may show signs of stress, depression and lethargy. Llamas and alpacas that undergo veterinary treatment should be in sight of conspecifics or, if possible, a companion in their hospital pen. If an animal’s companion dies, seeking out a replacement is essential. If this is not possible, single animals should be rehomed into a larger herd. In light of this, minimum herd sizes of three individuals are strongly recommended.

Foot and fleece care

Although alpacas and llamas are in the taxonomic order Artiodactyla (the even-toed hooved mammals), their feet are padded and have nails rather than hooves. Foot care is, therefore, important, and llama and alpaca feet should be checked regularly for overgrowing nails. Providing animals with exercise on different substrates will naturally wear down their nails. Well-drained pasture with areas of hardstanding will keep feet clean and dry, thus preventing instances of foot rot.

South American camelids are winter hardy but should be provided with a dry, windproof shelter. Open-fronted structures situated out of the wind in a sheltered area of their paddock are best as they ensure good ventilation. Hot summer temperatures may cause heat stress, so owners should ensure that all animals can keep cool by providing shade and bathing water.

It is important to manage fleece length accordingly […] by having a regular shearing routine and ensuring animals are sheared before summer

It is important to manage fleece length accordingly, for example by having a regular shearing routine and ensuring animals are sheared before summer. The clipping of alpacas and llamas that show signs of heat stress is required immediately. Because the fur of these camelids traps water, it is not recommended to douse unclipped heat-stressed animals in water. This is because trapped water will heat up further, exacerbating the problem.


Llamas and alpacas are intermediate feeders, which means they will graze and browse – as such, they require a diet high in structural fibre. Like other camelids, these species will “chew the cud” to facilitate microbial breakdown of forage. Although not true ruminants (like cows and sheep), rumination still has important health and welfare benefits and should be encouraged by feeding a high-fibre diet. Ad lib access to good quality hay, plus opportunities for grazing at pasture, will ensure that their fibre intake remains high and animals will ruminate effectively.

Although grazing and browsing on forage and pasture can meet a llama or alpaca’s daily intake needs, concentrate (pellet) feeding may be required depending on an individual animal’s physiological demands (eg pregnancy, lactation) and life stage. Body condition scoring of animals and regular dental health checks (Figure 2) provide useful information on the suitability and appropriateness of diets.

FIGURE (2) Llamas and alpacas will browse on trees and shrubs as well as grazing on grass. Teeth should be checked for misalignment and overgrowth that can impact chewing. The long front incisors of camelids have evolved to snip the leaves and shoots of plant material, so providing suitable cut tree branches for them to forage on is good enrichment for these animals

Salt requirements for camelids should met by providing loose salt grains in small piles on the pasture. This is because llamas and alpacas tend not to use a salt block or lick in the same way as domestic ruminants such as cattle and sheep.

Supplementation of minerals and vitamins may be needed based on feeding protocol. Selenium, copper and vitamin D are particularly important for good camelid health. Nutritional analysis of forage ration, for example, can help owners understand what may be lacking in a diet, therefore helping them provide supplements as needed.

Health and disease prevention

Although considered hardy species to manage, research recommends vaccination against clostridial diseases – an important cause of mortality in young South American camelids. Clostridium perfringens infection is fatal after a rapid onset of clinical signs and can be brought on by stressful situations. This makes herd biosecurity essential.

Llamas and alpacas are susceptible to bovine tuberculosis (bTB), so good stock fencing should be used (and well maintained) to reduce contact with wildlife carriers of bTB. Raising water troughs off the ground and maintaining good hygiene in feeding areas can also reduce the chances of contact with wildlife.

Although considered hardy species to manage, research recommends vaccination against clostridial diseases – an important cause of mortality in young South American camelids

Faecal egg counts are recommended every six months to check for any intestinal parasite burdens. This is because veterinary protocols suggest only using anthelmintic treatments when a worm burden is identified rather than a regular deworming routine that contributes to anthelmintic resistance. Both llamas and alpacas will deposit faeces in specific areas of the enclosure used as latrines, making good pasture management and removal of waste relatively easy.

Cleanliness and biosecurity

Keeping stocking rates to four llamas or alpacas per acre can assist with pasture cleanliness and biosecurity. Having multiple pasture areas is the optimum because it allows some pastures to be rested while others are in use. Pasture rotation promotes good grazing quality, reduces potential parasite burdens and maintains the soil integrity.


As the ancestors of both species evolved to live in areas of poor nutrient quality, obesity and over-condition of animals on UK pastures are more likely than malnutrition. Keep a close eye on camelid body condition and adjust feeding and exercise regimes accordingly.

Exercise and well-being

Training can facilitate exercise for llamas and alpacas, and these species are easy to halter train for handling. Ensuring all animals are halter-trained makes movement easier, improving individual and herd management. Halter-trained animals can also be taken on walks to explore new surroundings, which enhances their well-being and promotes good foot health (see “Foot and fleece care”).

Walking llamas and alpacas is good social enrichment and can strengthen the bond between owners and animals. By spending time with their animals, an owner can become more aware of the “normal” behaviour and personalities of each individual (Figure 3). This good stockmanship promotes improved animal welfare because behavioural signs indicating that an individual “is not quite right” can be spotted more quickly and veterinary intervention sought in good time.

FIGURE (3) Llamas and alpacas can be kept with other domestic ungulates, such as goats and sheep. However, owners should know their animals’ temperaments and personalities and ensure they have their own space. As llamas were domesticated to work, their quality of life is boosted by “having a job”, for example by going on walks or being pack animals

Health and safety recommendations – spitting

Finally, readers may be aware that (like all camels) llamas and alpacas can spit. They will regurgitate their stomach contents to fire at other animals in their herd as a warning or to show displeasure or dominance. Sometimes they may spit at people, but if you are aware of the signs of an annoyed alpaca or a livid llama (ears back, flared nostrils, huffing and puffing) you can retreat and avoid any unpleasantness!

References and useful further reading

If you would like to know more about South American camelid evolution and domestication, please see:

For a comprehensive guide to llama and alpaca behaviour in relation to welfare and human interactions, please see: “Behavioural biology of South American domestic camelids: an overview from a welfare perspective” (Miranda-de la Lama and Villarroel, 2023).

For useful information on salt intake for llamas and alpacas, please see: “Which one, loose or block salt feeding?” (PSE, 2023).

For more details on disease prevention and vaccination programmes (eg to combat clostridial infections), please see:

For overall information on llama and alpaca husbandry and management for good health and welfare, please see:

The websites of the British Llama Society and the British Alpaca Society also provide detailed and highly relevant information and advice on biology, husbandry, housing and management, veterinary issues and all things related to camelid care.

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